Monday, May 11, 2009

What's Fate Got to Do With It? (or, The Only Thing the New Star Trek Does Wrong)

(Beware; the following assumes you've seen the movie, or else have read enough about it not to have anything spoiled by what I'm about to say.)

The reviews are plentiful; you can find them everywhere, and all of them are saying the same thing: the new J.J. Abrams rebooted Star Trek as a near total success, so go see it, right now. It's by turns exciting, funny, dramatic, visually spectacular and emotionally affecting, and overall just a ton of fun. Even those who disagree on the essential thematic upshot of the film--does the film's revival of the original franchise's optimistic, high-tech, better-living-through-advanced-organized-technology vibe fit in with the Age of Obama? Or is the innocent, adventuresome excitement that animates the characters and their conflicts signal the decision to just make Star Trek into the pulp comic some always wanted it to be?--don't disagree on its awesomeness. Head to the theaters for the best Star Trek film ever...or at least, the best science-fiction/space-opera/adventure-with-spaceships-and-lasers (excuse me, phasers) film that you'll see this year. And I can't disagree--at least not with most of the above.

Not having spent a great deal of time investigating the internet, tracking down every sliver of plot detail I could come across--a geek I may be, but a Trekker, not so much--my original concerns with the film were almost entirely about the casting. The Star Trek franchise is just so immense, in so many different media, and so much of that immensity is tied up in the physical and artistic representations of the storyline's primary characters--Shatner's Kirk, Nimoy's Spock, etc.--that I was worried that the imagination of viewers like myself wouldn't be able to quite take it in. ("Viewers like myself"--what's that mean, you ask? Well, viewers like Rob Perkins, with whom I used to watch reruns of the original series and new episodes of The Next Generation back at BYU in the late 80s and early 90s; as he puts it in his review: "Today’s audience is composed of all the old people like me, and all the people even older, who loved that original 1960s series. But it also will include all the people younger than me who first encountered Star Trek in the late 80s and 90s. To them, the characters of that first show are already iconic, archetypes of all the other sci-fi heroes roaming the modern meme-space.") Will those of us who learned a particular kind of heroic, pop story-telling from those actors speaking those lines as those characters, those of us who didn't already know all about them as memes before we ever saw them perform, ever be able to enjoy our old friends being embodied by new actors? Just how would that work?

Well, I hereby put my original concerns aside. Again, as Rob says, "this movie wins." Everyone makes it work, and no one more than Chris Pine as James Tiberius Kirk. People can talk all they want about Spock, and the crucial, cool-yet-hot role he must play in these stories, but no--it wasn't just William Shatner's arrogance (well attested to by just about all his fellow actors on the original series) which forced his character again and again to the center of the episode's action; it was the fact that only a genuine, larger than life, immensely capable yet always needful persona could plausibly hold the loyalty and command the attention of the crew of the Enterprise (and, of course, of all those viewers in rerun-land, as well). And Pine pulls it off. As does Zachary Quinto as Spock, as does (truly, the greatest joy in the film for a real fan) Karl Urban as Dr. McCoy. As for the rest of the crew, who were always there but nearly always on the sidelines? Well, their performers have been much more room to develop and alter our old favorites, because they don't have nearly the weight on their shoulders. And so now Sulu is the sword-wielding Errol-Flynn-style warrior the fans always wanted him to be; Chekhov is a nerdy whiz-kid, which makes far more sense for his character anyway; Uhura is given intelligence and responsibility and sexiness (her relationship with Spock was the coolest narrative innovation of the whole basic meet-the-cast storyline, I think); and Montgomery Scott, of course, just really wants a drink. I have to agree with AICN's wonderful Alexandra DuPont: "The cast is a damned miracle."

So, that takes care of that. Does that mean there's nothing left to say; just, "it's a great summer film, go see it, and if you liked Star Trek before, you'll love it now"? Um, not quite. Because Alexandra makes another point, and it's not a particularly large concern for her, but I confess it weighs kind of heavily on me:

Almost everything else that bothers me about "Star Trek" is tied to the film's occasionally ridiculous embrace of coincidence--Kirk and his father run afoul of Nero in space battles, once at the exact moment of Kirk's birth; Kirk runs into old-Spock on an ice planet after being chased by a couple of monsters to a precise set of coordinates; Kirk and old-Spock then run into Montgomery Scott, who works a couple of miles down the road; etc.

Most of this head-scratching stuff happens during the 10-minute stretch of movie devoted to explaining the whole time-travel/reboot premise--and not coincidentally, it's only part of the movie that feels a bit sluggish. I guess you could argue that this is J.J. Abrams exploring the idea of fate in the "Trek" universe (i.e., exploring the idea that this crew was destined to be together). But that's a major philosophical break with a lot of the humanist/agnostic "Trek" material that's come before; Roddenberry's whole deal was that mankind was capable of solving its own problems without the help of God or Fate (see especially: "Who Mourns for Adonais?").

I found the larger story so charming and thrilling that this wasn't even close to a deal-breaker for me. But I'm not sure how someone who isn't a fan--who isn't on the bus already, basically--will react to the coincidence-fest.

This isn't exactly what I had in mind as my wife and I walked out into the parking lot last Friday night, but it's close enough. Probably none of the above makes sense to you if you haven't seen the film, and so what I'm about to say may sound even more confusing, but let me just press on for the sake of those geeks in the know who care about this sort of thing.

Think about it this way: what are all those hundred of other people in uniforms doing running around on the Enterprise? (Or, for that matter, looking helplessly at Nero's energy drill as he prepares to destroy the Earth, just happening to decide to do so while in geostationary orbit above Starfleet's San Francisco headquarters?) Well, on the television shows we knew: they were physicists and historians and archaeologists and weapons specialists and dozens of other occupations, because the whole thing is part of a plan, see--the plan to take the collected knowledge of the human race and use it explore and solve the mysteries of the universe, and be amazed and get beat up and learn a few things along the way. Now obviously, those old shows all had their stars, and everyone else (except for the occasional guest star) was kept in the background, waiting for the next red-shirted security guard to get killed. There were good--or, at least, defensible--narrative reasons why that was so. Still, the conceit of the show was that Kirk and Spock and McCoy and all the rest were one of those hundreds of others--luckier and braver and cooler and all the rest, sure, but still, not different. The original conceit of the show was thus anti-mythological; it was rigorously, deeply, collectively, humanist.

Now we have Star Trek, a movie that takes that original conceit, and suggests that at some point in the future the elderly Ambassador Spock, in an effort to save the planet Romulus, has blown a huge (black) hole in it. That black hole as led to the complete re-invention of the whole history of Star Trek, the storyline, as we knew of it. So far so good? I suppose--except then we are given the aforementioned 10-minute sequence in the film, in which Leonard Nimoy appears as "Spock Prime" and plays the Wise Old Man From the Future and gets Kirk and Spock to be what he (and the universe?) needs them to be in order to do what they need to do. In other words, J.J. Abrams makes Spock himself into his own--and Kirk's--deus ex machina. Now they aren't like everyone else; now we have a story in which God or Fate (or the mysterious "red matter") in a sense touches a couple of the characters on the shoulder, wrests them away from who they were and where they were going, and puts them somewhere else, as someone else. That is, as the movie has Chris Pine's Kirk say, in a bit of wise self-consciousness, "cheating." Unfortunately, all we can do with that cheating is note that it's a clever homage to the whole Kobayashi Maru plot point, which makes us think of Wrath of Khan, sigh and/or shake out head, and then get on with watching the film. Which is great, let me say that again.

I was never so hung up on Roddenberry's vision--or, more relevantly to the point I'm making here, his style of presenting his science fiction stories--that I find something wrong with the Star Trek franchise getting religion, having become fated, in a sense, with everyone else (the characters in the story and us viewers) kind of standing outside, being observers to a couple of awesome yet ordinary people who happen to have been lifted up and taken around a corner by the person who put the corner there in the first place. I mean, hell, what was Gandalf's resurrection in The Two Towers, or the Hand of God appearing at the end of The Stand, except a "cheat," a story of one type turning suddenly into the sort of story in which someone or something can upgrade the program while you're still running it? (Just to stick with Rob's computer metaphors here.) Such stories are fine; in fact, they can be wonderful. So I don't know. Melissa pressed me on exactly what was wrong with letting the story play out this way, given that the stories the sequel movies will tell are always going to be treating a few main characters as something very much like demigods anyway, and I couldn't tell her. Maybe it's that McCoy was, in a sense, "left out" of the reboot, and so now the classic Trek trio seems lopsided. I don't know.

Let's face it, these are the sort of complaints that only someone who lets their moral philosophy and geekery get mixed up could ever make. So let me just say that I enjoyed the film thoroughly, would recommend it to anyone...and, well, if part of me kind of wishes the reboot had taken place off screen, that we'd instead been given, as Tim Burke suggested, just a "complete do-over," rather than 10 minutes of Leonard Nimoy stitching together two different milieus, the seams of said stitching being plainly visible in how Kirk and Spock are played, well, that's my problem isn't? It sure doesn't need to be yours.


Lee said...

It's almost as if Abrams is Lost-ifying the Trek universe. :)

Aldo said...

What about "Q" deus ex machina-ing all over TNG? Did that bug you, too? I seem to recall not.

Jacob T. Levy said...

And the Prophets in DS9 certainly made Sisko a mythological figure of fate.

That said, I do basically agree with you here. I wasn't terribly bothered by the discrepancy, but I did notice it.

[And, frankly Q doing it did bother me-- because it seemed to make Picard a figure of fate, and Picard seemed to me least likely of the big three captains to be that kind of figure.]

Russell Arben Fox said...

But Jacob, as I know I've told you before, the deifying of Sisko in DS9 was ruinous to the series--especially the atrocious last season, with Gul Dukat becoming some sort of ridiculous demon who fate is to struggle with Sisko for all eternity, or something. But all that aside, I can handle mythologized stories; there are pop, sci-fi stories out there which make the "cheating" of Fate and God (or Q, for that matter) a central and fascinating part of the storyline. (Babylon 5 is the obvious example here; from what I've heard, I suppose that if I'd been a Battlestar Galactica watcher, that might be included as well.) It's just that Star Trek wasn't that sort of series, not in its original incarnation, not in TNG (and actually Aldo, yes, the Q episodes often did bug me, though the final "All Good Things" episode redeemed much of that), and I don't like seeing it here. I still loved the movie, sure, but it was, I think, ultimately employing a mythological type of tale that doesn't really fits with the kind of spaceship they're carrying it on.

Jacob T. Levy said...

Russell: yeah, that's right. And it's of a piece with the obvious Star Wars influences all over the place. Star Trek has traditionally been a Joseph Campbell-free zone, as David Brin famously noted in contrasting the two franchises. Another sign of the same thing: In Star Wars there were only ever about a dozen people in the galaxy who actually mattered, and half of them were related to each other or built each other or otherwise had histories linked by synchronicity. (And, of course, Lost is all like that, all the time.) Star Trek has now become a little bit more like that.

OTOH, as you note-- it works.

Camassia said...

I feel like your review and my own rather incoherent review (hey, after the movie we went drinking till one a.m.!) are angling towards the same complaint. I felt the new movie just inherited Roddenberry's world without really being interested in it. The Federation of the original series was that rarest of birds, a system that works, which is why, as you say, those particular characters did not have to be predestined for greatness. It's also why Kirk, despite breaking the rules all over the place, was totally committed to the Federation philosophically (he broke the letter of the law to keep the spirit of the law!). The new versions of the characters seem to just be using the system to fulfill their personal ambitions, which I think is to the detriment not only of the ST universe but to the characters themselves.

Kari said...

The folks at Wired agree with you: Trekker’s Take: Illogical New Star Trek Warps Coherency.

...the story begins to crumble under the sheer weight of the coincidences driving it forward. The best of the original Trek’s plots were constructed with rock-solid motivations and dramatic necessity. Event B followed Event A with appropriate logic — even considering the speculative fiction nature of the stories. But this adventure boldly goes to Planet Plot Convenience and stays there, marooning logic and clear character motivation on some uninhabited moon.

Jacob T. Levy said...

The writers attempt to defend all this; saying "quantum" makes it sci-fi and not magic! said...

I'm thinking that Nero chose Starfleet Academy on purpose, since he's destroying Earth to get Spock back, and the Academy is the part of Earth he would associate w/ Spock.

Elizabeth said...

Well, Riker did say that fate protects ships named Enterprise. And Crusher and Picard muse at the end of First Contact that they will probably keep building ships named Enterprise until at least they run out of letters of the alphabet. So there is a kind of mytos about the flagship.

And there is an aura around the character of Spock. We have been told many times that he is special. He dies and comes back to life, he saves earth by figuring out the whalesong, etc. So it didn't bother me too much that the characters seemed to be drawn to each other through coincidence and through the influence of !Spock.

Russell Arben Fox said...


Thanks for the link to David Brin; I hadn't seen that before (perhaps not surprising, since I avoided the "new" Star Wars movies like the plague). Referring to the world of Star Trek as a "Joseph Campbell-free zone" is a nice way to express some of what I, and Alexadra DuPont, and apparently many others, are all dancing around: Star Trek did not presume that the actions of its characters and the events of its storylines were "meaningful" in the sense of orienting them all towards a telos. In that sense it was deeply pluralist and classically liberal: if the Bajorans have, thanks to their access to the wormhole, a publicly available route to the transcendent, goody for them, but, for good or bad, such dosen't inform how the rest of the universe operates; the cool, unromantic imperatives of technology, bureaucracy, and human organization suggest that coincidences do not reflect any kind of destined action, but just, simply, coincidences. Even people traveling through time and messing with the past are ultimately understood as just addressing problems through technical reasoning. (Which all should mean that it's a universe that I shouldn't like: no Heidegger, no Herder, no Hegel, no political theology, no myth. But hey, it's totally cool, all the same.)

Russell Arben Fox said...

Camassia, great comment about the Federation being a system that works. Of course, the later movies and series compromised on this somewhat, but even when Picard or Sisko (or the later Kirk) were railing about or against the system, it wasn't because there was something wrong with having a system; it was just that the system was screwing up.

Jacob and Kari, thanks for the links; it's interesting to see how far this argument is traveling.

andersonblog, good point about Nero's choice about where to attack Earth. In the context of the story, he's a man completely driven by revenge, wanting to maximize it in everway; hence, choosing to implode the Earth beginning on Star Fleet's doorstop makes sense.

Elizabeth, you're right that there have been allusions throughout the series to the significance of the Enterprise. But I'm not sure any of those have been voiced in the way this movie suggests they could be voiced; that the Enterprise is the crucial ship to the whole timeline, the linchpin upon which history turns. Ditto with Spock. Yes, he's long had some element of mysticism to him...but there's a big difference, I think, between allowing that Spock is just one of those indespensible people, like a George Washington, and a world-historical person, which is another ball of wax entirely.

Camassia said...

It's funny, now that you bring up Star Wars I remember that the deus-ex-machina thing bothered me about the prequels too, and it's not like Star Wars wasn't already mythological. Maybe it's not mythology vs. humanism so much as the principles of economical storytelling. The original Star Wars trilogy basically had just as much Fate as it needed to tell the story (OK, Leia being his sister was pretty superfluous, but apart from that). In the prequels, on the other hand, you could have thrown out all kinds of things -- Chewbacca, Boba Fett, the droids, even the whole business about Anakin being the Chosen One -- and still set us up for the Luke storyline. I don't know why prequel writers keep falling into that temptation; even folktales provide plenty of templates for a humble-nobody-makes-it-big story.

Lee said...

Anybody seen the Robot Chicken Star Wars on (I think) the Cartoon Network? There's this great skit that's a take off on the Bespin scene at the end of Empire where Vader keeps presenting Luke with various coincidences of increasing ridiculousness. It begins with "I am your father" and ends with "And as a small child I built C-3PO."